After last year's controversial focus on "readability", the judges for this year's Man Booker prize have concentrated on the "pure power of prose" to pick a confident, eclectic shortlist of titles that ranges from Will Self's stream-of-consciousness novel Umbrella to Hilary Mantel's sequel to Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies.
Of the four debuts to make the longlist, two were chosen for the shortlist: Alison Moore's The Lighthouse, about a man trying to find himself on a walking holiday, and Indian poet Jeet Thayil's Narcopolis, set amongst the opium dens of 1970s Mumbai. Moore and Thayil will be competing for the £50,000 Man Booker prize with Mantel, who won the Booker with Wolf Hall in 2009 and has continued to follow the life of Henry VIII's adviser Thomas Cromwell in Bring Up the Bodies, and Self's critically acclaimed Umbrella, the story of a victim of the sleeping sickness epidemic at the end of the first world war.
Deborah Levy's Swimming Home, in which a young woman entangles herself in the life of an English poet and his family on holiday in the south of France, and Malaysian writer Tan Twan Eng's The Garden of Evening Mists, set in post-second world war Malaya, complete the shortlist, which was announced in London this morning.
"After re-reading an extraordinary longlist of 12, it was the pure power of prose that settled most debates," said chair of judges Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement. "We loved the shock of language shown in so many different ways and were exhilarated by the vigour and vividly defined values in the six books that we chose – and in the visible confidence of the novel's place in forming our words and ideas."
Stothard, on announcing a longlist that excluded major names including Zadie Smith and Martin Amis earlier this summer, had said that this year's judges were focusing on "novels not novelists" and "texts not reputations", looking for books that "reveal more, the more often you read" them. Nicola Barker, Michael Frayn and André Brink all failed to make the jump from longlist to shortlist, as did debut novelists Sam Thompson and Rachel Joyce and the 27-year-old author Ned Beauman.
The shortlist quickly drew acclaim from booksellers, with Foyles calling it "a huge vote of confidence for the novel as an artform", and Waterstones praising the panel's reluctance to go for the obvious choices.
"After last year's controversial list, one might have forgiven the judges for playing safe and just selecting the best known names," said Jon Howells at Waterstones. "To their credit they've not done that at all – only Hilary Mantel and Will Self are household names here. Can Mantel win again, with a sequel? Given the praise Bringing Up the Bodies has received, I think she must be the favourite. But with five titles here from smaller houses, it is independent publishing that is the winner today."
At Foyles, Jonathan Ruppin said that all six novels "do so much more than simply tell an engaging story: they are written with wit, insight and, above all, pathos, offering profound commentaries on the human condition". Tipping Moore's "moody and exquisite" The Lighthouse to take the prize, Ruppin said the selection was "a huge vote of confidence for the novel as an artform, as vibrant and essential as it has ever been".
The winner of the Booker will be announced on 16 October. Stothard is joined on the judging panel by actor and English literature graduate Dan Stevens, Liverpool University vice chancellor Dinah Birch, former Oxford academic and fiction reviewer Bharat Tandon and author Amanda Foreman.
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